Tuesday, April 27, 2004

How Well-Read Are You?

P.Z. Myers and Mrs Tilton both give coverage to the following list of books that's been making the rounds. The idea is to highlight all the items on the list you've read; I find myself faring surprisingly poorly, though I'm not sure I ought at all to be embarrassed, for reasons already well-explained by Mrs T.

Author - Title

Beowulf
Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
Dante - Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth

Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels

Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

What can I say? There are some unforgiveable lacunae in my reading, though there are also more than a few items on this list I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading of my own free will. Some of the titles on this list are tainted for me by their association with Disney animations and children's movies, while others are the sorts of dry 19th century stuff to be found on many a list of "improving works" that are guaranteed to glaze one's eyes over before quickly dispatching one to the land of Nod.

One thing I've just noticed about the volumes I've read is that only a single female writer is among the authors in my set of choices. This is partly an artifact of the arbitariness of the selection offered - for example, I've read Eliot's Silas Marner - but I think it's also partly a matter of my own literary sensibilities. There's just something about the works of the likes of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters that I find impossible to take an interest in; why should I care that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is a chap with a handsome fortune and in need of a wife of good family? It isn't that I don't like books about closely observed social situations, as I wouldn't have enjoyed Proust's work so much if I didn't. It's more a matter of my not sharing much in terms of worldview or aspirations with those by and for whom these sorts of works seem to have been written.

When it comes to the output of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, what goes for the Austens and Brontës is twice as applicable. As strange as it may sound, the fact that the former three are closer in time to me than the latter writers actually serves to make their writings more alien to me rather than less. Woolf, like Proust, moved in a very high-toned milieu indeed, but unlike Proust, she seemed to lack a healthy disrespect for her own status pretentions; while Proust knew he was a social climber, was unfailingly kind to menials and willing to exchange confidences with them, and rounded it all off by being a tipper of legendary generosity, Virginia Woolf was an unreconstructed snob. As for Sylvia Plath, patron saint of navel-gazing coeds and angst-ridden teenage girls throughout America, the less said of her self-indulgent scribblings the better. Toni Morrison's books, I've heard, are actually rather decent, but I'm afraid that her association in my mind with a certain sort of hectoring academic political-correctness has always made me averse to making the effort to find out for myself. Why bother when there are so many other books out there, and I've only one life to read them all?

Having said all the above, I'll also admit that I've every intention of reading Edith Wharton's books once I get the free time. First Wharton, then Henry James.